A Question of Revenue
What pays the bills in Hollywood is advertising revenue. The more ad revenue a show the larger it's salary budget. The key demographic that all advertisers seem to covet is that of the 18-49 year old demographic with older viewers being of little interest to advertisers since they show little propensity to change their spending habits.
Keeping this in mind, one can't assume that the show with the largest number of viewers brings in the largest advertising revenue, far from it in fact. Since NCIS' audience is comprised of a large segment of older viewers, it actually earns less in advertising than many other programs with smaller total audience numbers. "To advertisers, 16 million of those don't count: They're over 49," says Kyle Smith his November 23, 2013 New York Post article. "Marketers spend only about 5 percent of their ad budgets on viewers over 50, according to the senior-marketing firm Coming of Age." So while NCIS may retain extremely high ratings, they're not the revenue source to CBS that Friends was to NBC. This means that NCIS is much more sensitive to changes in ad revenue because they have less wiggle room in that respect than other highly-rated shows.
So viewership equals ratings equals ad revenue. But what other effects can unhappy fans have on networks?
One possibility is the effect on future revenue streams. Fans unhappy with a repeated pattern of behavior (i.e. not valuing actresses as much as actors) the abandon CBS brand. The way audiences watch television has changed dramatically- DVRs, OnDemand and online viewing options eliminate the need to watch live. Cable channels offer consumers even more unique programming options not available on network TV. So what does the loss of a viewer unhappy with a change in their favorite program mean to CBS? Many of the now unhappy had watched the show faithfully for eight or more years. These were fans who bought season passes from iTunes, DVDs from Amazon, merchandise from the CBS store like "Team Ziva" t-shirts. How can CBS quantify their loss?
What's the value of brand loyalty when there are so many entertainment choices available to consumers? Unhappy viewers may begin view CBS as having a tarnished reputation (i.e. "I will always view CBS as misogynistic -- and I will always think twice about what I watch, if anything, on that channel").
Damage can also be done via social media. More fans are active on Twitter and Facebook than ever before which means good and bad news spreads fast. And reactions to news spread even faster. Does ignoring the effects of social media mean CBS could be setting itself up for a fall? As previously stated, the competitive television landscape can change in an instant.
Television has a rich history of fan campaigns, many of them successful. In recent years fans have successfully gone up against CBS and returned beloved actors and the characters they portray to both Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami. It's quite clear to anyone who looks that there is a large population of fans unhappy with the loss of Ms. de Pablo and Ziva. Social media adds another layer, beyond email and snail mail, for viewers to voice their opinions and makes it more difficult on networks to ignore fan reaction.
Fan protests can be taxing on a network's resources. It means the network may need additional PR to counter effects of unhappy customers. For a publicist this can mean the difference between putting out fires or bad press versus good press for your show. Networks run the risk that casting changes (and the causes for them) become the story, rather than show promotion. If Les Moonves spends time addressing issue of Cote's departure, he isn't getting to tell everyone how great CBS and NCIS are. Fan outry does of course mean buzz for NCIS, but it also means CBS constantly addressing the topic of the loss of Cote and Ziva rather than trying to create Buzz about their new cast member. And it's interesting to note here that, despite the publicity push for the new character, ratings didn't increase for her debit episode at all, rather they remained flat. Essentially PR goes from being an offensive game to a defensive one. And defensive PR can be a network (and a publicist's) worst nightmare if they're ill-equipped and ill-prepared to handle it. Not to mention it can be expensive if CBS has to hire outside PR firms to help them wade through the PR quagmire.
So was it a good business decision to not agree to these items and let Cote walk from TV's number one show? Guess it depends on CBS' mind set and the core business values they operate under. If CBS has a history of low-balling offers, why would they change their MO now? Six months later and one can pretty safely say that many things would have been easier (for all parties involved) had Cote been made an offer that met her demands.
Consider that NCIS is not in its 11th season and while it has been a ratings Juggernaut, the exit of Ms. de Pablo and Ziva is its first real test of the loss of a key player. Lauren Holly and Sasha Alexander left, but neither of those actresses had the same tenure as Cote de Pablo. As the seasons passed, NCIS evolved from a focus on the weekly cases to focus more on the characters and their relationships which the viewers heartily embraced. The loss of Ms. de Pablo clearly changes what had been an extremely successful formula. Of course other shows have survived the loss of key cast members, but other shows were not this show. NCIS is like a finely tuned clock, and when you remove a key piece the clock may keep ticking but it will never tell time exactly the same way again.